Witness deposition through videoconference now acceptable in India

March 30th, 2008 - 10:48 am ICT by admin  

By Shubha Singh
New Delhi, March 30 (IANS) The use of videoconferencing facilities to take depositions from witnesses is no longer an unusual event in Indian trial courts. It is being used in some states to record the statements of prisoners undergoing trial. However, in recent months, Indian judges have been receptive to taking depositions in matrimonial cases through videoconferences from even people based overseas.

A family court in Chennai conducted proceedings in divorce for a couple based in two different countries last year through videoconferencing, while courts in Delhi have also accepted depositions from Indians living in the US through videoconferencing.

Despite the practical and infrastructural difficulties of arranging a videoconference connecting people in different time zones, the courts have shown a willingness to schedule hearings to accommodate the unusual timings.

The courts’ readiness to use videoconferencing can be a major relief to overseas Indians in dealing with matrimonial cases filed in India. Aside from the problems of taking leave from work and travelling to India for frequent court appearances, many NRIs are wary of additional cases being filed against them while they are in India. A videoconference can be a useful means of tackling the problem of non-appearance of overseas Indians in court cases.

In the case before the Chennai family court, neither of the parties was present during the hearing; they were in Australia and the US while the case was being heard in Chennai.

The couple, who are software professionals, had filed for divorce by mutual consent on grounds of incompatibility and differences of opinion while they were living in India. However, during the mandatory period of legal separation of six months, both of them had got jobs abroad, the wife moved to Australia and the husband relocated to the US.

Hence they could not be present in court when the case came up for orders. Principal judge for family court R. Devadoss agreed to allow their presence in court through videoconferencing. The court directed two close relatives of the couple to be present in court to identify them for the proceedings.

The two parties gave a sworn statement and the whole proceedings were recorded in audio and video format. The presiding officer accepted the depositions, which were countersigned by counsel and relatives of the two parties, as “recorded before me” before giving his order.

The technology came into use in Indian courts after the Supreme Court had held in 2003 that evidence could be recorded by videoconference even in a criminal trial as long as the accused or at least his lawyer is present when the videoconference is recorded.

Since then, several states including Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Bihar have introduced tele-justice.

Over 40 jails in and around Mumbai are connected to district level courts through videoconferencing. Andhra Pradesh was among the first states to connect 15 district courts with prisons in the state through videoconferencing facilities.

Videoconferencing has been used to record witness statements and the deposition of under-trials who are lodged in jails for it removes the need to bring the prisoner to the court, saving on the huge costs of taking those under trial to the courts. It has helped to reduce the backlog in judicial cases for the shortage of policemen to escort the prisoners to court has led to delays in the trial process.

Late last year, Additional District Judge V.K. Khanna suggested that the deposition of the husband could be obtained through videoconference in a divorce case in Delhi after the husband failed to make an appearance on three occasions. The husband lived in Boston and was unwilling to come to India. Under the statutory effort for resettlement between the couple, the court had asked for the videoconference in order to decide whether to call the husband for a personal appearance.

In a recent case at the Tis Hazari courts in Delhi, Additional Sessions Judge Kamini Lau held the hearing of a child custody case through videoconference with the father in New Jersey, US.

The father had sought exemption from personal appearance in court because of the difficulty in travelling to India. The judge said that the welfare of the children was an important consideration as she permitted the videoconference.

She allowed the doctor to depose through videoconference from the office of the Indian consul general in the US. The judge had asked the ministry of external affairs to make arrangements for a videoconference but accepted the doctor’s proposal to organise the videoconference at his expense as the Indian consulate did not have the facility.

The doctor had got married when he came to India in 1994 and the couple had gone to the US to live. The wife had returned to India with their two daughters, and the couple had filed several litigation against each other.

An official of the Indian consulate was present during the videoconference to identify the doctor. After recording the statement, there was additional relief for the doctor as the court also allowed him to speak to his teenaged daughters who were present in court.

In each of the cases, videoconferencing has been resorted to either on the suggestion of the court or with the active assistance of the court, even to the extent of giving directions to the external affairs ministry to make arrangements for the videoconference facility.

(Shubha Singh can be reached at shubyat@gmail.com)

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